Asian Art and History
Netsuke: A Portable Encyclopedia of Japanese Legends
Monika Bincsik, Ph.D., Diane and Arthur Abbey Associate Curator of Japanese Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Netsuke (miniature sculptural masterpieces, originally used as toggles) offer a window into the vast universe of Japanese history, myth, belief, scenes of everyday life, animals, flora and fauna, ghosts and demons. From mythical creatures to vegetables, netsuke subjects reflect artistic trends and customs of the Edo period, offering an insight into the original owner’s taste and lifestyle. From their first appearance in seventeenth-century Japan, netsuke were used as practical toggles for suspending everyday items from a man’s sash since the male kimono had no pockets. They were made of ivory, bone, ebony, wood and porcelain, and they could be decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl, metal alloys and elegant lacquer patterns. The most famous master carvers created miniature sculptures of unparalleled beauty and power. Some netsuke could have functioned as a talisman, but they were primarily fashion accessories. In the late 19th century, they became coveted collectibles.
This presentation is part of the Asian Art and History series.
Image: Artist Unknown. Buddha Netsuke, n.d. Mammoth ivory. Public Domain.